I remember walking through the portal and up to my seats at the Memorial Coliseum, a gargantuan structure just off Figueroa in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles. Having grown up in L.A. I understood the historical significance of it all. I took a deep breath and looked around the stadium, which was a sight I won’t soon forget. Utah was now “big time”, and it was clear that we were a long, long way from Laramie.

As I watched the Utes run out onto the field while “Utah Man” blared from the band, the experience quickly became surreal. It really was official…Utah was in the PAC-12, the “Conference of Champions”, and our first game was against the mighty Trojans of USC. We still needed to earn our right to be there, and our first test was against one of the most storied football programs in college sports history.

My hope was that we might at least compete that day, but I had been a college football fan long enough to know that USC would almost always be a formidable, fierce opponent. When comparing the size difference between the two teams, it was obvious who had the advantage, and truly, it wasn’t even close. Utah was playing with Mountain West Conference talent, and SC’s twos and threes were just as good or better than a lot of our ones. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

When I saw in person the sheer violence and aggression SC played with, I feared we might get run out of the stadium. It wasn’t long before I realized that we flat out could not run the ball, and that was with the future all-time rushing leader at Utah, John White IV. But the Utes fought, and they fought hard. Our scrappy defense forced turnovers when we needed them the most. Devonte Christopher made sensational catches all over the field against “five-star talent”, sometimes effortlessly. Utah just wouldn’t quit, despite the talent disparity and the overwhelmingly ear-deafening crowd of over 70,000 fans. The Utes gave USC all they could handle.

The Trojans roster featured future NFL players Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, and Marquis Lee, among others. Watching that talent level live was truly something to behold. Barkley wasn’t at his best because of Utah’s swarming and well coached defense, but it was still obvious that he was a future NFL quarterback. In hindsight, that The Utes were able to keep the game so close against an SC team that would eventually finish 10-2 and be ranked #1 to start the next season left me almost dumbfounded. 

A good portion of the players on Utah were recruited from Southern California, many from the very area where the Coliseum was located. Reggie Dunn, a player from the inner city of Los Angeles, absolutely owned the Trojans on one of the most memorable plays of the game. In the third quarter, Norm Chow called an end around from about the 45-yard line. Jordan Wynn flicked the ball to Dunn who quickly cut through the stout Trojans defense. USC couldn’t compete with that play, and they struggled to stop the speedy wideout from Los Angeles as he streaked toward the end zone. Reggie Dunn was probably the fastest player on either roster, and it seemed crystal clear that he, like many other Utes from Los Angeles, had a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t recruited by USC, but that day he carved out a 51-yard run that put Utah inside the 5-yard line, setting up a score that would bring Utah to within 3. Utah was in business.

With the score 14-17, Utah got the ball back. There was only 2:30 left on the clock in the fourth quarter. Jordan Wynn struggled to find receivers, but there are two passes that come to mind on that final, fateful drive.

The first was a dart to then then largely unknown freshman Dres Anderson across midfield. At that point, I could hardly stand to watch, but it seemed like Utah actually had a chance, and they exploited it. The Utes was forced into a 4th and 10 in Trojan territory, and Utah Fans held their breath as Jordan Wynn found Devonte Christopher right at the marker at the 38-yard line. Initially, the catch was ruled short, but after a challenge it was found that Christopher had the few extra inches needed to extend the game.

Things suddenly got interesting.

A pass interference call after the previous nerve-wracking Wynn to Christopher pass put Utah in field goal range. Coleman Peterson trotted out onto the field with the special teams unit and lined up in a tight formation to attempt the game tying, 41 yard field goal. The ball snapped, the holder placed it, and Peterson kicked it right into the arm of 6’7 lineman and future NFL player Matt Kalil. The SC sideline exploded and ran onto the field as Torin Harris ran the ball, untouched, the opposite direction and into the Utah end zone. Flags were thrown. Fans were wondering just what would be called.

“Excessive celebration” on USC. The game was over. Utah had just barely missed a chance to extend the game. I still remember Jordan Wynn walking out of the stadium, a dejected and disappointed look on his face as he ran his fingers through his mane of long brown hair. Jordan didn’t get a fair shake from the fans for that one performance, but he was a big part of the reason Utah had a chance to tie or even win the game.

What most fans didn’t know was that Jordan was far from 100%, having injured his shoulder toward the end of the previous season. He would never live up to his pre-injury potential, but he showed heart—at a champion level–in the first PAC-12 game ever played. All of the Utes did.

What is my point?

This game was an absolute classic. In fact, it was the first classic game in Pac-12 history, and it’s all too often forgotten. It had all the makings for a truly memorable football game, including as exciting a finish as you could ever hope to see in college football.

Utah didn’t come away with the win that day, but they proved that they belonged in the “Conference of Champions”, in one of the toughest, most intimidating environments in college football. It was obvious that they were deserving of their PAC-12 invite. Most importantly, they had the kind of heart, grit, and determination that would eventually make them a fixture in the conference, and a team that is now perennially feared. Since that day in September 2011, The Utes have defeated The Trojans three times, but never at the Coliseum. Perhaps 2021 will be the year they finally get to exorcise that demon. At this point, there is no doubt that they can compete at a high level in the Pacific-12 Conference, but truthfully, the best for Utah is still to come.